Seeing the Real Me: Using Loose Parts from Nature to Create Self Portraits


Authors Stacey Francois and Hannah Goble present their poster session Guest bloggers Stacey Francois MS, and Hannah Goble presented a poster session at the national conference of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. I was delighted to be able to talk with them about their work and am pleased to share it here. Welcome Stacey and Hannah!

Stacey Francois MS, and Hannah Goble are Professional Development Specialists for the Early Learning Coalition of Hillsborough County in Tampa, Florida. Through the Early Learning Coalition’s curriculum coaching project, Stacey and Hannah work with early childhood programs and professionals, providing coaching, training, and extensive support on curriculum implementation. A special thanks to Alphabet Learning Center, and Ms. Abelkis (Abby) Soriano who partnered with us to facilitate this mini-study on self-portraits and loose parts found in nature.

Child examining face in mirrorSelf-portraits provide children with a sense of identity, awareness of who they are in the world, and how they change over time. The activity of creating an image of oneself prompts the realization of self-concept, “self-concept refers to cognitive activity: children’s awareness of their own characteristics and of likenesses and differences between themselves and others.” (Marsh, Craven, & Debus, 1998) For children to define and appreciate the traits that make others unique, they must first have the ability to define their own. We chose to connect self-portraits with nature exploration to give children an opportunity to investigate nature in a personal way and diversify their outdoor play experiences.

Outdoor play in childcare settings may focus on gross motor and physical play, but lack exploration and discovery that take place in the natural world. Early experiences with the natural world have been positively linked with the development of imagination and the sense of wonder. (Cobb, 1977; Louv, 1991) Hands-on creative nature experiences help children develop strong connections to the environment and can foster a love for nature in later years. When children play in natural environments, their play is more diverse with imagination and creativity that fosters language and collaborative skills. (Moore & Wong 1997)

As curriculum coaches for the Early Learning Coalition we get to spend time seeing ‘play in action’, but lately we’ve noticed outdoor play with preschool age children, a little lack luster and unimaginative. We wanted to facilitate a mini-study that would give children an opportunity to investigate nature in a personal way, and diversify their outdoor play experiences. Igniting a child’s natural sense of wonder became our goal for a classroom self-portrait project. We were inspired to introduce one of our coaching classrooms at Alphabet Learning Center to self-portraits and loose parts. Ms. Abby, the lead veteran, Voluntary Preschool (VPK) teacher accepted our challenge. Ms. Abby has done self-portraits with four and five year old children many times throughout the years but had never incorporated the use of natural materials. Our goal was to do a mini-project that would focus on exploration with self-portraits using loose parts found within the children’s geographical environment.

Child holding up natural materialsTo encourage children to view themselves and connect to their natural local environment, various provocations were presented to the children throughout a multi-day project. The provocations–questions and thoughts to stimulate child’s thinking—were intended to help children identify the features that are unique to themselves and promote their sense of identity.  Our discussions prompted children to think about differences in skin tones, textures, shapes and contours of their face, and to think about natural items that they could use to connect their features to those found in their environment. Once the children defined their own features, we took them outside on the playground and on a nature walk through the neighborhood where they gathered materials from nature such as grasses, leaves, acorns, and other local materials to use as a representation of their faces in a self-portrait. We involved families in this project by asking them to gather natural materials from their own backyards. We wanted children to feel, manipulate, and discover materials familiar to them and native to Tampa. The majority of items that families brought in were pinecones, shells, leaves and acorns. However, there were items we chose not to use, like Spanish moss, as it often contains microscopic mites. We assisted children who wanted to use Sweet gum tree seed pod balls because they have spiky edges, and didn’t allow the use of seeds we didn’t recognize. Although seashells are not found on the playground, we had an abundance of them as we live in the Tampa Bay area; most children have experiences with them from going to the beach, seeing them used in landscaping and even décor in the home.

Self Portrait Guiding Question: What are the features that make me unique?

Day 1: What are the different features of people?

During large group, Ms. Abby facilitated discussion about the various features on people’s faces, after reading the book “The Best Part of Me: Children Talk About their Bodies in Pictures and Words” by Wendy Ewald. Children developed and graphed responses in a word web such as; dimples, chin, birthmarks and eyelashes. In small group, children created their own “Me Map” in which they listed features unique to them. Most of the children drew pictures of their features; a few used invented spelling and wrote themselves, and some sounded out letter sounds with assistance and wrote the words on their own.

Child using a mirrorDay 2: What do I look like?

Children used mirrors, pastels, fine tip markers and crayons to sketch a portrait of them selves. While using the mirrors, children were asked questions pertaining to their facial features including, “How does your hair feel?” “What shape are your eyes?” “How can you draw that shape?” These questions prompted children to closely examine their features and develop an awareness of their facial features.

Child examining natural materialsDay 3: What can I find in nature that looks like me?

Before heading outside to collect items, the children were reminded to gather items that resembled their features; like grass, leaves or stems for their hair. We gave all the children plastic bags and asked them to collect the materials they wanted to use for their portraits. While exploring outdoors children collected items found in nature that could be used in a collage to create their self-portraits. Children investigated native plants, tree bark, sand and seeds and collected items they felt were depictive of their features. Coaches and teachers provided science tools, such as magnifying glasses to compare the texture and color of the items with their own faces, and encouraged children to use them. Children used mirrors to make immediate comparisons between nature items and their own features. 

Day 4: Can we show our features?

Child working on self-portrait collage using natural materialsUsing the nature items they collected, children created self-portraits as a representation of their uniqueness as individuals. Children used mirrors for a visual of their features. Teachers prompted children to consider the shape and contour of their faces while constructing their portraits. The children sketched their faces using pencils and sketching paper, and then used multicultural pastel chalks to color their skin tones. Finally, the children sorted through their bag of nature items, decide on what they wanted to use and glued them to the sketching paper. Ms. Abby and coaches took photos to document all of the steps.

This mini-study on self-portraits and natural loose parts prompted children to think of their outdoor time as an opportunity for exploration and investigation. We found that the children became more intentional when headed outdoors for play, as their focus became of one of investigating materials, searching for acorns, feeling tree bark and smelling grasses, which differs greatly from their typical outdoor play routines. Our children connected to nature in a personal, reflective way by using items found in their very own backyards to make unique self-portraits. Our mini-study on self-portraits on natural loose parts took place over four days but had a longer lasting impact as our children were able to explore scientific tools, express their artistic creativity in the making of their self-portraits, and extend their understanding of the world around them.

Detail of poster showing children's faces and collages


Cobb, E. (1977). The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood, New York, Columbia University Press.

Ewald, W. (2002). The best part of me: Children talk about their bodies in pictures and words. Boston: Little, Brown.

Louv, Richard (1991). Childhood’s Future, New York, Doubleday.

Marsh, H. W., Craven, R., & Debus, R. (1998). Structure, stability, and development of young children’s self-concepts: A multicohort-multioccasion study. Child Development, 69 (4), 1030-1053

Moore, R. & Wong, H. (1997). Natural Learning: Rediscovering Nature’s Way of Teaching. Berkeley, CA MIG Communications.

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8 Responses to Seeing the Real Me: Using Loose Parts from Nature to Create Self Portraits

  1. Susan Michael says:

    The program described sounds great! I hope to try it out soon!

  2. Chandra Donaldson says:

    How excellent! Giving children the experience of creative arts, self awareness and discovery!!! I love it 200%

  3. Theon Salley says:

    The children appear to really enjoy exploring the materials like “Little Scientists”. What a great way to introduce and support children’s exploration of the natural world as well as make connections to their own self- awareness and the diversity that surrounds them everyday. Great project to share with other early childhood teachers and “Thank You” for sharing your project with us!!!!

  4. Liliana G. says:

    This Research not only allowed children to explore nature but also analyzed the importance of creativity and imagination. Now a days parents and teachers relay on technology to enhance their teaching and learning experience with children at an early age. This project reflects how a cross curricular activity can improve students interactions and learning experiences. 🙂

  5. Abbey S. says:

    I’m very grateful that I had the opportunity to do this project with my students. It’s truly remarkable to see how they used common materials that we collected to create a self portrait in a way that reflected how they see themselves. It was a wonderful experience.

  6. Tracy Knight says:

    I think this was was a very special project for children to see themselves as the special person that they are using nature, imagination and self-reflection. Play is learning! Thank you for sharing this with us.

  7. Janet Stutzman says:

    I love the pictures showing the pure joy on the children’s faces. They obviously loved this mini study. What a great learning experience for them, and actually everyone involved.

  8. Shirley Grimaldo says:

    This was a great expirience for the kids and us as well. The kids learned so much from this mini study and they thaught us a lot. Thank you for choosing our center. It was a great honor. We will continue to strive to be the very best.

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